After 30-year cleanup, Waukegan Harbor ‘open for business’

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk has been collecting mud from the Waukegan Harbor for 14 years, but he was able to stop Tuesday.

Kirk, R-Ill., was joined by Gov. Pat Quinn, Waukegan Mayor Wayne Motley, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-10th, along with other local leaders, when the Environmental Protection Agency officially unclassified the harbor as a Great Lakes Area of Concern during a ceremony at the harbor’s Stiner Pavilion.

“Get my bucket,” Kirk said when it was his turn to speak.

“Ich — this is what we took from the lake,” he added, putting his hand in a blue bucket to show the sludge full of PCB-contaminated sediments he has been collecting. “Now this is an economic revival for Waukegan, Illinois and Lake County.”

The cleanup project has been 30 years in the making and cost more than $150 million to remedy, according to EPA Regional Administrator Sue Hedman. Work included removing the contaminated sediment, restoring habitat, eliminating combined sewer overflows and improving beaches.

“Illinois families, wildlife and businesses benefit when Waukegan Harbor is safe and open for business,” Quinn said. “Working tirelessly with federal and local partners, we have been able to turn a once heavily contaminated site into a safer destination for humans and wildlife alike. Cleaning up PCB waste and protecting the Great Lakes is the right thing to do for Illinois and our nation.”

Schneider was also quick to highlight the economic benefits, saying the economy and the environment are intertwined in positive ways.

“This work shows we don’t have to choose between economic growth and a clean environment,” Schneider said. “Waukegan has a rich history and Lake Michigan is a link for the community. This will give it the economic growth it needs.”

Kirk said the economic benefit of a clean harbor in Waukegan is one of the reasons he prioritized the cleanup when he was first elected to the House of Representatives 14 years ago. The mission continued when he was elected to the Senate in 2010.

“For 14 years this has been my No. 1 priority,” Kirk said. “It has been an obsession of mine. I once rented a bus and took the Waukegan City Council to Kenosha to see what was done there. This is going to bring more jobs.”

Kirk went on to express anger over years of toxic waste dumping in the harbor. He noted that PCB, which is classified as a persistent organic pollutant, was discovered in the Outboard Marine Company site 30 years ago.

Durbin went on to call the occasion an opportunity to hold corporations responsible for their actions.

“For years corporations were using the harbor as a dump,” Durbin said. “We went to the responsible corporations. They have a responsibility for the water, the air.”

Quinn credited the people of Waukegan for leading the charge to get the harbor cleaned up.

“This is a movement that came from the grass roots, especially Susie Schreiber,” said Quinn, referencing the executive director of the Waukegan Harbor Citizens Advisory Group.

Schreiber lobbied federal, state and local officials to move the project forward.

“You should all talk to Susie Schreiber about what she did,” Kirk told the crowd that gathered in front of the harbor.

Motley, who was elected Waukegan’s mayor just over a year ago, took no credit but expressed nearly three decades of pride.

“For 27 years I was a police officer and wore a patch which said, ‘Waukegan, city of progress,’” Motley said. “Today we have realized that.

“This is what [the harbor] should be and what it should become.”

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